Monday, August 13, 2018


How well can you control your emotions?

The essence of mindfulness is acceptance and non-reactivity. It’s like the old-fashioned tape recorder or the modern-day video surveillance camera; the equipment records but does not react to what it hears or sees. So it is with mindfulness.

Ordinarily, whenever there is an activating experience, there follows an emotional response on our part. The emotional response may be positive, negative or neutral. In between the activating experience and the emotional response is the interpolation of some belief or misbelief (eg ‘This is pleasant’, ‘This is unpleasant’, and so on) about the activating experience which causes us to pass judgment on, and then react emotionally to, the experience.

A recent study, involving more than 150 adults, evaluated the impact of long and short-term mindfulness meditation training on the amygdala response to emotional pictures in a healthy, non-clinical population of adults using blood-oxygen level dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Now, the amygdala, at the end of the hippocampus, is part of the limbic system of our brain and is responsible for the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses, especially fear, anxiety and aggression. Mindfulness meditation and other forms of meditation can quieten the activity of the amygdala.

 Photo credit: National Institute of Mental Health.

Long-term meditators had 9081 hours of lifetime practice on average, primarily in mindfulness meditation. Short-term training consisted of an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. The control group, made up of people with no meditation experience, was randomly assigned to a ‘health enhancement program’ over the same time period that included well-being practices, but not meditation specifically.

After an eight-week period, participants viewed and labelled photos as either emotionally positive, negative or neutral while undergoing a brain scan by functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Meditation training was associated with less amygdala reactivity to positive pictures relative to controls, but there were no group differences in response to negative pictures. Reductions in reactivity to negative stimuli may require more practice experience or concentrated practice, as hours of retreat practice in long-term meditators was associated with lower amygdala reactivity to negative pictures, although the researchers did not see this relationship for practice time with MBSR.

Short-term training, compared to the control intervention, also led to increased functional connectivity between the amygdala and a region implicated in emotion regulation (in particular, the processing of risk and fear), namely, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), during affective pictures. Thus, meditation training may improve affective responding through reduced amygdala reactivity, and heightened amygdala–VMPFC connectivity during affective stimuli may reflect a potential mechanism by which MBSR exerts salutary effects on emotion regulation ability.

: Krak T R A et al. ‘Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli.’ NeuroImage vol 181, 1 November 2018, 301-313.